The new 26th District Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, fresh from her swearing-in ceremony at the State House Thursday, is still processing how her life has changed in just over five weeks.
On the morning of Jan. 9, she was a former Mine Hill council member and Roxbury Township municipal clerk serving as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs and the wife of Assemblyman Alex DeCroce. By the day's end, she was a widow, just days away from being elected by area Republicans to fill her late husband's legislative seat.
In a freewheeling Friday conversation with Patch, DeCroce, 59, pauses from her increasingly busy schedule—she's already received committee assignments and is getting started on her pet issues, education and women's and children's concerns—to muse on her past, her future and what she wants her new constituents to know about who she is.
Patch: Congratulations on becoming official!
BettyLou DeCroce: Thank you. It's a great occasion, but it's also bittersweet for me. If I had a choice, I would love to see my husband still sitting there. Sometimes, it just doesn't seem real, you know what I'm saying? I know and I accept, of course, but it still feels surreal.
Patch: Well, it hasn't been very long since you lost your husband.
DeCroce: It's been a month and—wow—one week.
Patch: Can you imagine? A lot has happened in a very short time. At the same time, while one can never prepare for something like this, you've told me that you and your husband had talked about the possibility that this very situation could happen. And at the convention, you said that things move rapidly in politics.
DeCroce: They certainly do. If [politics is] something you're going to do, you have to make decisions. That's why I said [after Alex died] that I had to sit down with my family. They were definitely aware, through Alex, that this was what he wanted. Of course, he would rather have been standing alongside of me while I did it, but it didn't end up working out that way.
Patch: Sadly, there's no explanation as to why tragedies happen. All we can do is try to find what positives can come from them. In a situation like this, the positive is that you get an opportunity to build upon your husband's legacy and create, or really, to continue, your own.
DeCroce: Exactly. Being in government and being engaged in all levels of government on a professional level as my career, there is a lot in me that is different than what Alex was. That's where he and I were such a great match. He had the state end and I had the local end. Bringing those together, was, I think, very good for the people because that brought in knowledge from all sides. I learned from him and he learned from me. We always respected each other's views and opinions and had faith in them. We were very unique. Not every political family can have that kind of harmony.
Patch: You and Assemblyman DeCroce were married for about 18 years. How did you two meet?
DeCroce: Through politics! The ironic thing is that when we met, he was running for freeholder and I was the vice chair of the campaign of his opponent. (Laughs.)
That's one of the many things some people don't know about me. I've chaired and done fundraising for many campaigns. I even managed a [Township Council] campaign for [current member] Mike dePierro, John Fox [now on the County Board of Elections] and [current Parsippany Mayor] Jamie Barberio. I know about working with the grassroots. Some of the things I've done go way, way back. I was an aide to Bill Bishop the assemblyman [in the 1980s, when Rockaway resident Bishop represented the 25th District]. That's when I lived in Mine Hill and was a councilwoman there. I used to drive to Trenton and sit in front of [former 11th District U.S. Rep.] Dean Gallo. But that's my family tradition. My grandmother was an aide to [U.S. Rep.] Rodney Frelinghuysen's father! We go way back.
Patch: And you have history in Parsippany, too.
DeCroce: Oh yes, I live here now, of course, but I lived here years ago too, and my dad lived on Parsippany Road his whole life. ... My aunt still lives on Parsippany Road. I even served as a [GOP] committeewoman there. I have a lot of roots in Parsippany.
Patch: It was a Parsippany man, Councilman John Cesaro, who nominated you at the convention. I've spoken with him quite a bit about you, and he has nothing but wonderful things to say.
DeCroce: John's a very good guy. And he's running for freeholder! He would make an excellent Morris County freeholder. Because he cares. John's an example of someone in public service who's doing it for the right reasons.
The assemblywoman is distracted by her dog, which she and her husband bought from a breeder in 2010. She recounts how the pet brought joy to her late spouse.
DeCroce: He idolized her and spoiled her rotten. In the mornings, I would leave here at 20 after seven to drive to Trenton to work down at DCA, and when the weather was nice, he would sit on the porch with the dog on his lap. When I came back, they would be sitting on the porch waiting for me to come back.
Patch: That's an adorable story. You know, it occurs to me that here is a good thing: You're used to the drive from Parsippany to Trenton.
DeCroce: Yeah, in a lot of ways, it really feels like this was meant to be. I'm where I was meant to be. Everything that happened in my life and career prepared me. And not just for a seat in the Assembly. If I did not have her, this house would be totally empty. And Alex had her so spoiled, she's always after me to do the things he used to do, which is a good thing.
Patch: That keeps you busy. That's a good thing at a time like this.
DeCroce: Yeah, it is. But I have to worry about who's going to take care of her when I'm away. Luckily, I have a great young man next door, little Justin Carifi, who helps me out. He even came to Trenton with me yesterday and stood with me on the floor for the swearing-in.
Patch: What a great experience for him. I remember seeing you with him at the convention. Sweet kid. You said at the time that he was a great helper. Not a surprise, he's from a really strong family. How did you enjoy the ceremony? Were you welcomed?
DeCroce: Oh yes, everyone was wonderful. It was very heartwarming. It's a miracle I didn't cry, but Alex would not want me to do that. He would say, "Don't cry. Show them you're strong." And I did.
Patch: Mrs. DeCroce, you've shown us your strength during this entire situation. You've been the picture of grace through the highs, the lows and everything in between. Women in Parsippany have told me what a great example you're setting.
DeCroce: That means the world, hearing that. Thank you. But women... well, we adapt well in general, don't we? We have to. That's why I'm glad that one of the committees I was assigned to is Women and Children. I'm going to be sitting on the Education Committee as well.
Patch: Those issues will be your focus?
DeCroce: That's right, education, women and children, and local government, because that's what I know best. I can tell you one area that needs to be reformed, and that's civil service. It's terrible. They say it protects people, but it hurts people. The good workers and the ones who know the job are bumped out, and then you're stuck with people who don't know the job and have to be trained. All this training and re-training is not cost-effective and the downtime costs taxpayers' time and money.
Patch: So you're hitting the ground running, then.
DeCroce: I'd also like to be on the Local Government Committee, but it's filled, so I'll get my chance another time. Now, that doesn't mean I can't participate, provide input or give testimony on things I see on the local or even the state level, given my almost two years at DCA. I learned so much there. And I learned how to work from the outside in from working in a municipality.
Patch: Do you think this gives you experience that some of your new colleagues may not have?
DeCroce: Yes, exactly, and it helps. I've also worked for the County of Morris, which I don't talk about much. I worked for the sheriff's department. So really, my experience covers local, county and state government. That's why Alex has a plan for me; he saw my experience and that I had much to offer. As I was so proud of my husband, the distinguished man that I knew—and I married him not because he was a politician, but because he was a wonderful man—he was proud of me. As I respected him, he respected me.
That's why—and he was very upfront about it—he had a plan for me. He said it was time that a woman had the seat. He said it was about time, because Carol Murphy was the last woman to have a seat in the Assembly. [Murphy, who passed away in December 2011, was remembered by Alex DeCroce at the time as being "invaluable" to the Assembly.] He said to me, "A woman should be in the seat, and with everything you have to offer and that you do for me, you would be a great help down [in Trenton]."
He didn't want me there because I was his wife or to make it a power play, like some pundits want to say. Alex thought it would be good for New Jersey to take the knowledge and experience I have worked for and bring it into the legislature. I could argue for things that would be good for the public and for the municipalities.
I'm a multitasker. I can do many things at a given time. Women tend to be able to do this: You can run a home, have a family, operate a business and have a career. You can do many things—I know I am. You just have to work hard at it and be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Patch Did you get to spend any time at the State House working on business yesterday? The big vote on marriage was going on.
DeCroce: Yes, I was there mostly observing the whole time. I saw lots of legislators on both sides of the aisle running around, in and out, not listening to the resolutions and the recognizing of individuals. I really think these legislators can do a better job.
Patch: Now you are on the job officially, but only for a short time. Are you planning to run to stay in the vacated seat through 2013?
DeCroce: Yes, so if a Republican plans to run against me, I'll be campaigning for the primary election in the spring, and then if I win, for the general election in November. Whether anyone runs against me or not, and even if I didn't have to run this year, I think it's my job that everyone in my towns and my district gets to know me. They need to know how I am and where I stand.
Patch: What do they need to know about you? What's most important?
DeCroce: I follow through. If you give me something, I will follow through and very quickly. That's how I've handled my entire career, so people know. You don't see things laying on my desk; I'm very organized. You won't hear, "Well, we gave it to the assemblywoman a month ago and never heard from her." You will never hear that about me. And I handle my own e-mail. I read every piece of mail that comes across my desk.
I'll be an advocate. You'll see me making sure that I understand the lay of the land in the legislature You may see me being observant at the start, but as time goes on, especially when it comes to my main issues, you'll see me become more vocal. If I don't understand an issue, you'll see me make sure that I [learn to understand it.]
There isn't any way to make everybody love you or like you or believe in you, but I'll do my darnedest to get the highest percentage of people on my side.